For gifted hitters, taking a swing feels as natural as taking a breath. That is, until it doesn't.
Braves center fielder B.J. Upton has become all too familiar with that kind of shortness of breath over the past several years, culminating with what was his career-worst season in 2013.
In Upton's first full season in the big leagues in 2007, he hit .300 with 24 home runs for Tampa Bay. Last year, in his first season with the Braves, he hit .184 with nine home runs. But his most astonishing stat might have been his .176 batting average against power pitchers, which are defined by baseballreference.com as those in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks. Upton struggled even more against power pitchers in 2012, hitting just .151.
Power pitchers throw hard, and recently, Upton just hasn't been able to catch up.
"I know I haven't really been using my legs since 2008," Upton said. "When I first broke in, I was using them 100 percent. I have no idea why I stopped using them, it just kind of happened."
Upton's inefficient use of his lower body led to an issue with timing. When a hitter doesn't properly load his legs and gather his weight ahead of a pitch being released, it forces his upper body to take over. And no one can hit a Major League fastball with only his arms.
In Upton's case, he was too upright, with his weight too settled in his heels, and he could not properly initiate his swing. His hips were not rotating toward the pitcher in time for his hands to take that same path. Rather, because the right-handed hitter's hips remained closed toward first base, his hands were traveling toward the lefty batter's box. In order to get back to the ball, the path the bat traveled through the hitting zone became not only much longer, but also right to left rather than straight ahead. Subsequently, Upton was pulling nearly everything he hit toward left field.
But more often than not, the extra length in Upton's swing was causing such a timing issue that he was simply unable to catch up to the ball. When pitchers are throwing 95 mph, a hitter's first move simply cannot be away from the ball. Upton's bat speed and quick wrists, once lauded by scouts, were completely diminished by his lower half.
Logic would say that a hitter who is only pulling the ball must be ahead of it, but with Upton, that just wasn't the case.
"Hitting can be very counterintuitive," said hitting coach Bobby Tewksbary, who consults with several Major Leaguers. "Late causes early, while early allows you to be on time. When you load too late, you never have a chance to properly develop your swing. You end up rushing to contact with your upper body and hitting the ball to the pull side."
Braves hitting coach Greg Walker and Upton's father Manny, who was a college ballplayer and AAU coach and has always closely monitored his son's swing, both spoke to Upton repeatedly about the problem. But last season, the stress of moving to a new team in a new city and living up to a new five-year, $75.25 million deal compounded Upton's issues at the plate. And while it was nice to have little brother Justin by his side in the Braves' outfield and clubhouse, Justin's monster April left B.J. scrambling to keep up and desperate to contribute. Each circumstance made him squeeze the bat a little tighter, and that compounded the mechanical problems he was already having.
According to Walker, B.J. Upton worked tirelessly in the cage all year, but fixing these types of mechanical issues in-season is nearly impossible, especially because Upton was practicing a swing that was flawed.
"It was pointless work," Upton said. "I didn't understand what was wrong. I think I just thought the wider I got, the more I would use my legs. But that wasn't right."
As Walker explained, Upton might as well have been jogging.
|"I can feel myself using my legs now. I'm basically just sitting on my legs more, if you can think of it that way. If I use my lower half, everything corrects itself."|
|-- B.J. Upton|
So this offseason, Walker and Manny Upton showed B.J. video of his swing from 2007. That swing was efficient. Upton was hitting for both power and average, and to all areas of the ballpark. The coach and the father made it clear that Upton didn't have to change. He simply had to get back to being himself.
"He's always been a super-talented kid, but there got to be more moving parts in his swing as the years went on," Walker said. "It was a domino effect, and he wasn't giving himself a chance to hit. So we challenged him. We said, 'We want this B.J. Upton, not the one with all the inefficiencies.'"
Upton and his father worked all winter at Upton's Tampa, Fla., home -- hitting of a tee, soft-tossing and hitting in a cage -- to restore his swing to its former glory.
"We just simplified everything," Manny said. "We broke the swing down into three components -- the load, the bottom half and then the hands -- so he could get the sequence back and get a feel for what he was doing."
In that no-pressure setting, making the adjustments didn't take long.
"I can feel myself using my legs now," Upton said. "I'm basically just sitting on my legs more, if you can think of it that way. If I use my lower half, everything corrects itself."
Walker did make one trip to Tampa this winter to check in on Upton's progress, and the coach was pleased with what he saw.
"You could tell within two swings that B.J.'s lower half was clean," Walker said. "And he's carried that into Spring Training."
Now, the question is whether or not it will stay clean against live pitching and allow Upton to find his opposite-field power, increase his batting average and regain his confidence at the plate.